Some of the Bravest
In his new photography book, The AIDS Activist Project, ACT UP activist and photographer Bill Bytsura pays tribute to the spirit of protest while reminding us that AIDS is not over
by Alina Oswald
Throughout the years, many photographers have embraced black-and-white to tell some of the most intense, intriguing, powerful and memorable stories for various reasons. Award-winning photographer and AIDS activist Kurt Weston [A&U, November, 2005] says black-and-white offers his art “a concentration of expression” and likes that intensity, in particular in his portraits. Ted Grant, the father of Canadian photojournalism, believes that “when you photograph people in black-and-white, you photograph their souls,” while Swiss-American photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank calls black and white “the alternatives of hope and despair to which mankind is forever subjected.”
ACT UP activist and veteran photographer Bill Bytsura, whom I interviewed for A&U in January 2015, also chose black-and-white photography to capture the souls, despair, as well as the hope of his subjects, AIDS activists during the eighties and a good part of the nineties, in a remarkable body of work, The AIDS Activist Project. Influenced by the likes of Diane Arbus, Dorothea Lange, Roman Vishniac and Richard Avedon, Bytsura often uses black-and-white in his own work. To him, black-and-white photography is “more truthful, and much more powerful” and is meant to capture powerful images. And The AIDS Activism Project is just that, a collection of intense and intriguing portraits, a unique body of work that captures a less known, more candid, intimate side of the AIDS and ACT UP activists.
A Plattsburgh, New York, native, Bill Bytsura moved to Pennsylvania in 1974, where he became interested in photography. A few years later, in 1984, in New York, he started photographing professionally for clients like American Express, Newsweek Magazine, and Jazz Times Magazine, and also documenting a number of AIDS organizations. His photography work has appeared in national and international galleries, from New York and Pennsylvania to “Don’t Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age of AIDS” exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia.
Bytsura started to work on The AIDS Activist Project about thirty years ago, photographing AIDS activists, in particular ACT UP activists from across the country and around the world. This impressive body of work includes some 225 photographs, as well as personal notes written by the activists themselves. In 2011, The AIDS Activist Project was included in the Fales Library and Special Collections, at New York University.
The AIDS Activist Project book includes only portraits of ACT UP activists. The book is “a memorial tribute to the departed” to those activists who’ve lost their battle with the virus, as well as a “reminder that the epidemic is not over.” In the foreword, David France (How to Survive a Plague) writes, “Photographer Bill Bytsura set out to memorialize those individuals, along with the movement’s rank and file, mid-battle.…What he produced is a study in defiance. But the photos betray a deeper insight. Yes, you see the power and the strength, the awful resolve in their faces. But he has also found fear, and the mountains of unprocessed grief. These beautiful photographs…bring us as close as we may ever get to knowing what the plague years wrought. Just look into the eyes of the frontline warriors.”
This November 5, I had the chance to look into the eyes of these activists when attending The AIDS Activist Project book opening event, at the Housing Works bookstore in New York City. Despite the rain, the bookstore filled with people, all eager to meet Bytsura and learn more about the story behind the book. A slideshow displaying images from the book was running on a big screen, on a wall. Bytsura, himself, made a point to welcome everybody, shake hands and pose for pictures. Among those attending the event, including someone who had come from Atlanta, Georgia, there were some familiar faces, familiar because I had seen them in Bytsura’s book. Ann Northrop was there, and so was Robert Vazquez-Pacheco, a member of Gran Fury collective. He soon joined the photographer on stage, in a conversation about The AIDS Activism Project book, and a passionate dialogue about a then-and-now of AIDS, and ACT UP, activism. After all, there’s much to be said about activism, in general, and AIDS—ACT UP—activism in particular, when looking at it through the lens of time. Liking or Sharing something online, today, doesn’t quite equate to getting out in the streets and demonstrating for your life, taking the risk of possibly getting arrested.
Bytsura shared his personal experience losing Randy, his partner of seven years, to AIDS, and the depression and sadness that followed. He reiterated his gratitude towards his friends who, while trying to help, had guided him to ACT UP.
To this day, the photographer still recalls the intensity of those meetings. “I was inching for the door,” he said, with a shy smile, while at the Housing Works bookstore, inching along the wall, as if to demonstrate the movement. And yet, as intimidated as he felt while at ACT UP meetings, he was too afraid of everything that was going on around him at the time, of the idea, back in the eighties, that authorities would tattoo individuals living with HIV, and so, he went back to ACT UP.
“Free condoms, dental dams + gloves all over the (spelled “de”) world!! The multi nationals have the money and the power, let them pay for it. Free excess to all medical help everywhere. Silence = death, Action is (with = over it) live (that’s why I’m an activist)”
At the Housing Works bookstore, during the Q&A session that followed, the audience wanted to know more about the making of The AIDS Activist Project body of work, the people Bytsura photographed, and about his feelings, as a photographer, while revisiting his work, making the final selection for his book.
“I was honored to be able to photograph people who were in ACT UP,” Bytsura said, his voice humbled by the memory of that experience. He wanted to make sure that the names and faces of those individuals—in particular of those who ultimately lost their battle with AIDS—would never be forgotten.
Never forgotten will be activists like Robert Farber, who was an artist and actor, and who noted, “I have AIDS. I take a lot of medicine to buy time. But there is really nothing anyone can do to change my situation. I know how this story will end.”
Never forgotten will be activists like Oscar Bodelier, whose note reminds that:
“Silence = Death
Action = Life
We have to protest
Protest to survive.”
One of my personal favorites is the portrait of Robert Garcia, now also gracing the cover of The AIDS Activist Project book. The attached note remarks: “So I would whisper to myself as I was marching shouting demonstrating, fighting back. Robert, every step is a tear you don’t want to cry, every arrest is an act of hope. I don’t know what ACT UP represents, a little order in this chaos we know as the AIDS crisis.” Signed “Robert Garcia, as a thought not a complete statement.”
There are also portraits of ACT UP activists who’re still with us, still leading the fight. Among them, Larry Kramer, Charles King, and Ann-christine d’Adesky [A&U, August 2017].
Also included is a portrait of Peter Staley [A&U, June 2015]. His note states, “[Activism has] gotten my T-4s going. It’s given me a social life. It’s like night and day compared to where I was before I began, before I joined ACT UP.”
The last portrait included in the book is that of Robert Vazquez-Pacheco. His is a hopeful message: “I work in AIDS because …I believe in social change. I believe that a real cure for AIDS involves addressing the problems exacerbated by the pandemic: homophobia, racism, sexism, classism, etc. The cure I want is more than just a vaccine. The cure I want is human liberation.”
Some thirty years later, at the Housing Works event, he called Bytsura’s book “an inspiration” and “a record to show that we were there, we were fighting.”
When I got to talk to Bill Bytsura, before having my own copy of The AIDS Activist Project signed by the author, he explained the reasons behind putting the book together, and offered a message to its readers. “When I was going to ACT UP meetings I would look around the room and think that these are some of the bravest and [most] courageous people I have ever met. My goal was to present them as such, and record the faces and words of people who stood up in the middle of one of the most tragic epidemics and fought for change, acceptance, and treatments. I’d like people to look at the faces and remember this movement and these people, and maybe be inspired that they, too, could help make change.”
Learn more about Bill Bytsura’s work and The AIDS Activist Project photography book by visiting: www.theaidsactivistproject.org.
To find out more about Housing Works and Housing Works Bookstore, please visit: www.housingworks.org.
Alina Oswald is Arts Editor of A&U.